In general, progressives seek to make voter registration simpler and more accurate, and voting more convenient. Right wingers try to make it harder for eligible Americans to register and vote. Your argument is based on freedom, patriotism and the modernization of our outmoded voting systems. Their argument is based on the fear of voter fraud, often imagined as fraudulent voting by illegal immigrants.
Whether you are arguing for a progressive reform or against a right wing restriction, begin with a statement of your values.
Say . . .
In America, the right to vote is a fundamental freedom. And because we are the leading democracy in the world, our election system ought to be completely free, fair and accessible.
Why . . .
You must put the conversation in context. When talking about voting, progressives have two great advantages that are too-rarely used by our side:
First, the most popular and powerful value in political debate is freedom. Use it here. If voting is understood as a basic right like freedom of speech, then it should never be curbed unless it risks an immediate, serious threat to public security (shouting fire in a crowded theater). Our freedom to vote should never be limited without an overriding reason—and none exists. If you can win the frame that voting is a fundamental freedom, you’ll ultimately win the argument.
Second, Americans are proud of American democracy and an appeal to that feeling of patriotism will help persuade.
What about Voter Fraud?
If someone tries to cast a ballot by impersonating an eligible voter, that’s a crime punishable by years in prison. Because the penalty is severe, with no real advantage to the perpetrator, this crime almost never happens. And yet, impersonation is the only kind of voter fraud that could be prevented by requiring people to display photo identification.
The problem is, Americans firmly believe that voter fraud exists. According to a Washington Post poll, 48 percent say voter fraud is a “major problem,” 33 percent think it’s a “minor problem,” and only 14 percent believe it’s “not a problem.” Americans probably believe that because we do have an anecdotal history of “voting from the graveyard,” and the 2000 election did expose the fact that some election administrators are extremely inept.
Don’t say . . .
Say . . .
Voter suppression or disenfranchisement
Most basic right in a democracy
Free, fair and accessible
Making it harder to vote
Why . . .
Expect the right wing to cry voter fraud no matter what legislation is being considered. The best messaging advice is—don’t say the F-word. You cannot win the argument by educating voters that fraud is rare. Instead, acknowledge the importance of protecting the integrity of our elections and push the debate away from fraud and toward the goal of making elections free, fair and accessible. That poll-tested phrase is discussed in the report Talking About Voting 2012 from the Brennan Center for Justice and the Advancement Project. It works. And don’t use the language voter suppression ordisenfranchisement because it is polarizing; say “making it harder to vote” or “making it harder to exercise our freedom to vote” instead.
When arguing against voter ID legislation, appeal to freedom and patriotism as suggested in the narrative above, and then:
Say . . .
It is essential to protect the integrity of our elections. But in the process, we cannot infringe on freedom; we cannot deny voters an election that is free, fair and accessible. If we require Election Day precinct officials to scrutinize each and every voter’s identification and limit the types of qualified ID to just a few, it will create long lines for everyone, increase election costs by millions of dollars, and make it much harder for Americans who don’t have a driver’s license—including senior citizens and military veterans—to have their votes counted. There are more effective ways to keep our elections honest without making it harder for all of us to exercise our fundamental freedom to vote.
Why . . .
This argument never uses the word fraud and does not dispute the existence of voter fraud. It suggests instead that this particular legislation is flawed. Specifically it makes three points:
- Long lines—In considering any policy, people first want to know how it affects them personally. Voter ID will increase everyone’s waiting time at the polls, perhaps by a lot. Let voters understand they will be personally inconvenienced by this law.
- Taxpayer costs—Right now any unnecessary government spending is unpopular. A photo ID requirement means the government will have to pay to educate voters about the new rules, educate precinct officials, and perhaps pay for staff or machinery in order to speed up the delays it will cause. This may sound like a small point, but it played a big role in winning the 2012 Minnesota referendum on voter ID.
- Making it harder to vote—This is the most important argument but, to be effective, limit your examples to the most sympathetic victims. Average Americans can be persuaded by focusing on seniors and veterans who are lifelong voters; often they no longer have valid driver’s licenses and they would have a hard time getting substitute ID. Swing voters are less likely to be persuaded by hearing about people in poverty who lack identification.
Do not underestimate the difficulty of the progressive argument. Average Americans generally believe the conservative talking points are true. After all, they have to show photo ID whenever they get on an airplane and even when they buy Sudafed at the drugstore. Why not require it to vote? Understand that you start this debate at a severe disadvantage, so you must be mindful of Americans’ beliefs and use the best-informed messaging to win them over.
Progressive Voter Reforms
In most states, the voter registration and Election Day systems are ancient, inefficient and inaccurate. That’s why we need to modernize these systems with processes and technologies that are commonplace everywhere else except in the administration of elections.
Say . . .
No eligible American should be prevented from exercising his or her freedom to vote because of errors or obsolete systems. The procedures we use to conduct elections now were designed for our great grandparents. They don’t fit the way we live or the technologies available to us today. By modernizing the election process, we eliminate long lines, cut costs, make it more convenient for eligible citizens to vote, and maintain the integrity of the voting system. [Online registration/early voting/automatic transfer/other reform] will help make our elections free, fair and accessible for all of us.
Why . . .
Progressives usually want to talk about how automatic, online or Election Day registration helps people who are not registered. They want to explain how early or absentee voting helps people who aren’t able to vote. But overwhelmingly, the audience you’re trying to persuade is registered and manages to vote. So you need to talk about how progressive reforms benefit them personally—for example, how members of your audience deserve the convenience of their voter registration being automatically transferred to a new address when they move.
There are many important proactive election reforms. When you argue for any of them, appeal to modern technologies and modern life. “The system needs to be modernized and brought into the 21stCentury.” “Today’s outdated system is vulnerable to manipulation and human error.” “In this day and age, no one should ever be denied the fundamental freedom to vote when commonplace technology can ensure our elections are free, fair and accessible.”
Right wing argument: Online registration will lead to voter fraud.
Say . . .
We need to ensure that our elections are free, fair and accessible for everyone who is eligible to vote. Nineteen states use online voter registration because it saves money, reduces errors and speeds up the line to vote on Election Day. Those states have proven that online registration leads to more accurate voter rolls, not fraud. It’s time to replace outmoded and inaccurate voting systems with modern technology.
Right wing argument: Early voting is not worth the cost.
Say . . .
Our elections should be free, fair and accessible for every eligible voter. Restricting the vote to one particular Tuesday is inconsistent with the requirements of modern life. That’s why 32 states allow citizens to vote before Election Day at designated places and times and 27 states allow voting by mail for any registered voter who requests an absentee ballot. Both of these increase the opportunity for citizens to exercise their right and fulfill their responsibility to vote. At the same time, by enabling early voting, we diminish the number who vote on Election Day which eliminates long lines at the polls. The fact is, it costs very little to replace our ancient and inefficient policy of Election Day voting with a modern system that benefits everyone.
Our Progressive Vision: In America, the right to vote is a fundamental freedom. And because we are the leading democracy in the world, our election system ought to be completely free, fair and accessible. The way we conduct elections today is obsolete. We need to eliminate long lines, cut costs, make it more convenient for eligible citizens to vote, maintain the integrity of the voting system, and stop the rich and powerful from exercising undue influence on the process. In short, we must: (1) guarantee that every citizen can register; (2) ensure that every citizen can vote; and (3) crack down on the way campaign financing corrupts governments.
Ensure every citizen can register
In a democracy, every citizen ought to vote and the first step is universal registration. A progressive system registers voters automatically, for example, when anyone who is eligible to vote gets a driver’s license or receives a public service. Registration should also be offered at state and local government offices, online through the Internet, and at polling places on Election Day. And no one outside of prison should be disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction.
Ensure every citizen can vote
There should be no barriers to prevent eligible citizens from voting. Governments should permit both early voting and no-excuse-needed absentee ballots. Election materials should be available in other languages where needed. Voting machines should be absolutely reliable, counting every vote. Governments should crack down on any voter intimidation or use of fraud for voter suppression. Americans should have the freedom to vote made clear in state constitutions. And to ensure that every vote counts equally in presidential elections, states should adopt the National Popular Vote.
Reform campaign financing
Money has an outsized influence on our current electoral system, endangering our representative democracy. Poll after poll shows that voters think the political system is controlled by big companies, political action committees, and rich individuals. And they are right. Candidates in most gubernatorial and state legislative races receive the bulk of their campaign funds from large donations or from non-party entities like PACs. Because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the activism of ultra-right wing billionaires, the amount of money pouring into political campaigns through independent expenditures has grown exponentially. The growing cost associated with running for office makes campaigns prohibitively expensive for most Americans, thus restricting the freedom to run for office to a small minority of the population. In addition, with the rising cost of running for office, candidates need to spend more time fundraising, which restricts their ability to meet with and listen to their constituents. The system is broken and the only real solution is public financing of election campaigns. New York City’s law, for example, requires participating candidates to limit campaign spending; in exchange, a public fund will match small donations. Connecticut provides a good public financing model as well.
Every election cycle, millions of Americans find that they cannot exercise their right to vote because of inefficient or outdated registration systems. Because of human or system error—a misplaced form or a data-entry mistake—paper-based voter registration systems bar many citizens from accessing the ballot box. At the same time, the systems of paper registration forms that jurisdictions continue to use simply cost too much; they require millions of person-hours by government employees or contractors to maintain and use. Fortunately, states can curb these costs while also producing fewer errors by adopting automated online voter registration systems. By converting to an automated online system, states can eliminate the need for almost all physical forms related to registration and minimize the need for employee form-processing. The registration system should include a secure and accessible online portal for individuals to register to vote, update their voter registration information, and check necessary voting information such as polling location. So far, 31 states offer online registration.
Protection from intimidation
Too many Americans are prevented from exercising their right to vote because of voter intimidation or suppression, or mistakes by election officials. Although voter intimidation is illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act, most violators are never punished. In addition, federal law does not prohibit willfully fraudulent voter suppression tactics and it does nothing to prevent or address mistakes. States can adopt a Voter Protection Act, which employs three avenues to ensure that every eligible voter can vote: First, impose heavy penalties for both voter intimidation and fraudulent suppression. Second, require every polling place to post a Voter’s Bill of Rights (as some states do). Third, reduce mistakes by creating an Election Day Manual of Procedures that sets out election rules, and make it available to both voters and officials at the polls.
Americans are disgusted by the way massive campaign contributions corrupt the democratic process and give unfair advantages to the wealthy and well-connected. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the activism of ultra-right wing billionaires makes the situation even worse. Americans want and expect us to do something about it. Public funding of state and local elections works. New York City’s law, for example, requires participating candidates to limit campaign spending. In exchange, a public fund will match each dollar a city resident contributes to the candidate up to $175 with six dollars in public funds for a maximum of $1,050 in public funds per donor. This kind of system increases the value of small donations and encourages more people at varying income levels to participate in the electoral process.
The Public Leadership Institute is a nonprofit educational group organized to raise public awareness on key issues and to develop public leaders who will improve the economic and social conditions of all Americans. To join, click here.
Juvenile Justice Reform Act: This model combines three urgent reforms. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act restricts pretrial confinement to youths who pose a danger or may flee from justice; it limits the circumstances when judges can transfer defendants from juvenile to adult courts; and it protects accused children by ensuring that they do not waive their constitutional right to counsel.
Pope Francis Suggests a Progressive Freedom of Religion! Last Saturday the Pope gave an address on religious freedom in Philadelphia. Instead of hard-line opposition to abortion, contraception and LGBT rights, Pope Francis said not a single sentence that could not be embraced by progressives. What is this progressive view of religious freedom? Read about it on IdeaLog, our blog intended to raise eyebrows and engage minds.
How the federal budget (and any future shutdown) affects you: TODAY! Thursday, October 1 @3pm Eastern, 2pm Central, 1pm Mountain, Noon Pacific. Right wingers have been trying to shut down the federal government supposedly to defund Planned Parenthood. Campaign for America’s Future co-director Bob Borosage will explain what’s going on and how it will affect state and local governments, as well as individuals everywhere. Register for the webinar here.
Most voting machines are obsolete or nearly so: Voting machines operate well for only 10-15 years and most jurisdictions use machines at least that old. The Brennan Center issued a recent report surveying the problem—see if your jurisdiction needs to go shopping soon.
Toolkit for enacting Ban the Box: The National Employment Law Project recently published a tool kit for Ban the Box—legislation that removes questions about criminal history from job application forms. Nineteen states and more than 100 cities and counties have banned the box; you can too.
See us at upcoming conferences: The Public Leadership Institute will participate in the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) conference October 1-3, WiLL/WAND conference October 4-6, Local Progress conference October 26-27, and National League of Cities November 4-6. If you’ll be at any of these, please alert email@example.com and we’ll look out for you.
Tax Enforcement Fairness Act: Americans believe that rich individuals and big corporations do not pay their fair share of federal, state or local taxes. They overwhelmingly support fairer enforcement of tax law. This model would dedicate money for tax authorities to crack down on “major tax evasion.”
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How to improve elections and voting at the local level: Tuesday, March 24 @3:00pm Eastern, 2:00pm Central, 1pm Mountain, Noon Pacific. The Fair Elections Legal Network will report the status of local election reform efforts and describe a variety of tactics that localities can use to make registration and voting easier. Register here to participate.
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The National Journal reports “Americans Give Up On Washington”: Last week, National Journal published a poll that found Americans overwhelmingly “feel that the best solutions for the country’s problems will come from local communities, state governments, and institutions” rather than from the federal level.
Compendium of State and Local Legislation: What has happened in the states, cities, counties and towns so far this year? Read about it in our Compendium. And we welcome input! If you have additions, please contact Michael Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prepaid Card Consumer Protection Act: The Great Recession of 2007-09 reminded Americans that our financial system is unfair. Right now, you can’t lose with voters by picking a fight with banks. One option is to prohibit unfair restrictions in “gift” cards. Here’s a model bill.
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Gunpalooza! How to talk about gun policy, and much more: Wednesday, February 25 @3:00pm Eastern, 2:00pm Central, 1pm Mountain, Noon Pacific. This will encompass much more than messaging. We will discuss the facts, survey research, strategies and constitutional arguments behind efforts to curtail gun violence. Register here to participate.
What cities, counties and towns can do to improve elections and voting: The Fair Elections Legal Network published a toolkit to help solve some of the biggest problems in election administration as well as promote a more voter friendly environment. It includes innovations in voter registration, poll worker recruitment and training, voter education, and various other administrative practices designed to boost overall voter participation. See Local Initiatives Designed to Improve the Voting Experience.
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Order printed copies of the Progressive Agenda: The 2015 Progressive Agenda is ready for distribution. You can download a PDF copy here. If you are willing, we will send you printed copies to distribute to your colleagues. Order here or contact Michael Weiss at email@example.com.
Clean elections: If the 2014 elections proved anything, it’s that the process for funding elections is broken. Besides getting a different Supreme Court, there is one realistic solution—public financing. The New York Clean Elections Act is a good model.
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Health insurance for your members or constituents: Wednesday, November 19 @2:30pm Eastern, 1:30pm Central, 12:30pm Mountain, 11:30am Pacific. The Obamacare enrollment period begins November 15! Join our next webinar where experts from Enroll America will discuss what you can say and do to help your members or constituents get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Register here to participate.
Help finalize our new Progressive Agenda for States and Localities: Our 2015 Progressive Agenda is now online with 50 suggested model bills on twelve different policy topics. Before we send it to the printer, we invite your suggestions, criticisms and edits. Download a PDF copy here. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Election results at the state level: NCSL has charts and maps that provide detail about what happened in the 2014 General Elections.
First draft of Progress in the States and Localities: We have a first version of one of our anchor publications, Progress in the States and Localities now online. Please send your suggestions to Michael Weiss at email@example.com.
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act: This legislation requires that workers who are pregnant or recently gave birth must receive reasonable accommodations to stay on the job. It’s a hot topic—such legislation was recently enacted in DE, IL, MD, MN, NJ, WV as well as New York City, Philadelphia, and Providence, RI. PLI offers model legislation for states and localities. The National Women’s Law Center provides resources to help you gain support for the Act. Why not pass it in your own jurisdiction?
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Make economic development subsidies more accountable and effective: Wednesday, September 24 @3pm Eastern, 2pm Central, 1pm Mountain, noon Pacific. States and localities spend billions on corporate giveaways, often receiving little of value in return. Please join our special guest Greg LeRoy, the Executive Director of Good Jobs First, to find out what you can do about wasteful subsidies in your own state, city or county.
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Great policy guide on voting issues: Fair Vote has created a new resource that provides one-page policy briefs and model legislation covering a wide range of state and local policies. Click here to see how you can expand access to voting and improve the democratic process.
Victories and defeats in 2014: This up-to-date resource provides ideas for progressive legislation and warns you of right-wing campaigns: The Compendium of State and Local Legislation.